It would be kind of dramatic to call any game in a 162-game baseball regular season a “must win” but, at the end of September and beginning of October, it certainly feels like that for teams in crowded playoff races. The Toronto Blue Jays, currently only one game out of the second American League Wild Card spot, know that feeling well. They’re so close to playoff position but only have four games left to play and need to leapfrog two teams to reach the postseason.
After losing to the New York Yankees, who hold the first AL Wild Card spot and are two games ahead of the Blue Jays, on Tuesday night, Toronto bounced back in a big way on Wednesday against New York ace Gerrit Cole. But, the Blue Jays didn’t get much help from around the league as both the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners won. Boston holds the second AL Wild Card spot and is a game behind the Yankees while Seattle is a mere half-game behind Boston. That leaves Toronto one game back of the Red Sox and trailing the Mariners by a half-game.
However, the quickest way to make up ground is by beating a team directly in front of you, and the Blue Jays have another chance to do that on Thursday night in their rubber game with the Yankees. With a win, Toronto would be one game behind New York and, with the Mariners idle, would be tied with Seattle. There is the possibility of the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Mariners tied entering the final weekend. So, yeah, Thursday’s game is pretty important.
Cy Young Award candidate Robbie Ray goes for the Blue Jays against the Yankees’ Corey Kluber. First pitch from Rogers Centre is at 7:07 p.m. ET. The BetUS Sportsbook has the Blue Jays as -142 moneyline favorites while the Yankees are +127. MLB odds have the over/under at 8½ runs.
Ray Has Been Really Good
The only thing that ever seemed to be holding Ray back from becoming a dominant front-line starter with the Arizona Diamondbacks was control. He has always been able to strike batters out, but he walked so many guys that it was hard for him to keep runs off the board despite having elite stuff. That has completely changed in 2021, as he is walking a career-low 2.3 batters per nine innings, which has translated to an AL-best 2.68 ERA and AL-best 1.037 WHIP.
Ray is also leading the AL in strikeouts (268) and hits (7) per nine innings. When you put all those stats together, he’s having an incredible year and is building a very strong candidacy for the AL Cy Young Award, despite a couple of subpar September starts that have pushed his numbers down a little bit.
For the most part, Ray has been great down the stretch for Toronto. He has allowed one run or fewer in three of his five September starts with a pair of double-digit strikeout performances. He held the Minnesota Twins to three hits and one run in his most recent start and should be able to do well against a Yankees team that strikes out a ton, especially against offspeed pitches. If you’re betting online, look for Ray’s electric slider to baffle New York, especially the red-hot Giancarlo Stanton.
No Consistency From Kluber
Kluber’s first season in pinstripes has been an up and down. When he has been on the mound, he has actually been pretty good, compiling a 3.82 ERA with a strikeout per inning, albeit with atypically high walk numbers for him. The issue is that he hasn’t been on the mound very often, only pitching 75.1 innings due to a right shoulder strain that caused him to spend most of June, July and August on the injured list.
Kluber pitched just one inning in 2020 and the injury risk was very real for the Yankees when they signed him. He is clearly still working himself back into shape and his September has been an uneven one, with one great start (against the Cleveland Indians) mixed in with three bad starts. He gave up eight hits and three runs in 4.1 innings to the lowly Texas Rangers in his last outing.
So, it makes sense that the MLB odds favor the Blue Jays and you should back them, even on the runline. Last night’s offensive outburst from Toronto might be what’s needed to kick-start a dormant offense. Kluber just doesn’t seem capable of holding down the Blue Jays’ firepower.
Bats Could Be Back for Blue Jays
Yes, it was just one game, but for a team that relies so heavily on its offense, scoring six runs against Cole and the Yankees’ strong bullpen was huge for Toronto. For the past two weeks or so, the Blue Jays have played .500 baseball because their big bats haven’t been hitting as well as they did earlier in September when Toronto made its big push back into the playoff picture.
On Wednesday night, Bo Bichette, George Springer and Marcus Semien provided the heroics for a team that has scored 10-plus runs the most times in baseball and has won the most games by eight or more runs. But, the Blue Jays haven’t done either of those things since Sept. 12, which shows how uncharacteristically lackluster their bats have been as of late. If there was a time for one of their patented, break-down-the-door scoring outbursts, Thursday would be perfect.
As far as MLB picks go, I wouldn’t predict the Blue Jays to drop double-digit runs on the Yankees. However, with how they looked against Cole, expect them to make things tough for Kluber and Co.
Pick: Toronto Blue Jays -1½ runs (+130)